East Meets West

How Asian Restaurants Target Southern Tastes

STORY BY STELLA JIANG, DESIGN BY JESSICA CASTRO-RAPPL & PHOTOS BY TIFFANY CLARK

A friend told me that before she first went to China 20 years ago, she would go to Asian restaurants near her home in Virginia. She thought the food there was authentic, but she realized after her visit that she was wrong. There’s a big difference between American Chinese food and real Chinese food.

But as immigrants from half a world away flock to the American South, the demand for Asian restaurants in the region has boomed.

In 2000, Asians made up 3.6 percent of the population in the North Carolina city of Durham, according to census data. Within 10 years, the Asian community there had increased 70 percent, with 5.1 percent of the total population identifying as Asian in 2010.

The situation in Atlanta is similar. Asians composed 1.9 percent of the total population of that Georgia city in 2000. Within 10 years, the Asian population increased 64 percent, with 3.1 percent of the total population identifying as Asian.

The influx is largely the product of Asian students and scholars coming to the South for college. Seeing an opportunity to market to this growing demographic, business people started opening Asian restaurants, Asian food courts and Asian supermarkets in the South. Some provide authentic Asian dishes while others stick to Americanized Asian fare.

American-Asian food includes dishes such as General Tso’s chicken, fried rice and wonton soup. Southerners tend to prefer sweet food, says Guo Zhang, the chef at the food court of LiMing’s Global Mart in Durham. General Tso’s, which is sour and sweet with black sesame seeds, is one example of how these Asian restaurants are trying to cater to American tastes.

Yvonne Gu, co-owner of Gu’s Bistro in Atlanta, says that over the years, Chinese people came to the U.S. and changed Chinese food to cater American tastes.

Restaurants like Hibachi China Buffet in Cary, N.C., also serve American-Asian dishes. Hibachi China Buffet tries to combine Asian cooking styles and Southern food flavors. The restaurant serves broccoli and chicken, sour and sweet chicken, cheesy mussels, salt and pepper shrimp, sushi and fried rice.

These fusion restaurants are trying “to present Americans a different way of cooking and meanwhile much adjustments have been done on Asian cuisine to match Americans’ preferences on tastes,” says Ben Liu, manager of Hibachi China Buffet. The restaurant targets mainly non-Asian groups.

Patrick Wang, a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Biomedical Engineering of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says despite staying in the South for almost three years, he still has an Asian stomach.

“I don’t go to Hibachi often because I don’t like Americanized Asian dishes,” Wang says. “I don’t like the sour and sweet sauce used for American-Asian cuisine.”

Going to authentic Japanese or Korean restaurants in the larger city of Raleigh is another choice for Wang when he doesn’t want to cook at home.

“I prefer to go to restaurants that provide authentic Asian cuisine as well as Americanized Asian cuisine,” he says. “Almost all the Asian restaurants provide Americanized Asian food for Americans. It is inevitable, but I can also find great Asian food at these restaurants.”

Other restaurants adopt different strategies. They provide authentic Asian cuisines to Asians and American-Asian style dishes to Americans. Some Chinese restaurants have different menus for Chinese and for Americans to cater to different preferences for taste and menu design. Some restaurants have a sushi bar and steakhouse at the same time.

“Chinese people don’t like to eat what Americans are more likely to order in my restaurant. [Chinese] have different preferences on the tastes of food,” says David Ren, the owner of Dragon Inn in Durham.

But some Americans are open to Asian tastes.

Gu says, “People who love our food, actually they eat pretty spicy. I was pretty surprised.”

Food courts at Asian supermarkets in the South mainly target Asian customers. LiMing’s Global Mart in Durham, for example, provides groceries and authentic, cafeteria-style Chinese dishes. Zhang says he insists on making authentic dishes despite working in the United States.

“I started my cooking career when I was 15 years old, and at that time I was in China,” Zhang says. “I have been in the U.S. for four years, and I still insist on making authentic Chinese food.”

He says Americans prefer sweet tastes, so he adjusts classic dishes to sate their appetites.

“If I know the dishes are for Americans, I will make the dishes sweeter,” Zhang says.

Americanized Asian dishes have their fixed recipes, and restaurants often stick to them. As a result, almost all restaurants provide similar Americanized Asian food. And it all tastes pretty much the same.

“We don’t make changes. Whatever the recipe is, we stick to it,” says Liu.

That’s why Americans in the South don’t often have many opportunities to try authentic Asian food.

“It is a pity that Americans don’t have much opportunity to have authentic Chinese cuisine in the South because restaurants usually provide Americans with American Asian dishes,” he says. “Restaurants need to make profits, and Americans are also their customers.”

Zhang says he believes that if food is good and prices are reasonable, people, no matter their ethnic group, will come back.

One of the biggest differences between Asian and American cuisines lies in the raw materials and sauces — this is the first and most important step in making authentic Asian dishes. Americanized Chinese dishes feature a similar pre-made sauce — maybe the combination of soy sauce and sugar, Gu says. She says ingredients are key to making authentic Chinese food.

As transportation and technology improve, Asian restaurants in the South can more readily get the base ingredients they need from suppliers and Asian supermarkets.

Zhang says the availability of ingredients is not an obstacle to making Chinese dishes, and it is easy to find the best raw materials in the United States.

“I feel like you can find any ingredients in America,” he says. “I thought Sichuan pepper, green zanthoxylum and pastured poultry would be the most difficult ingredients to get in the U.S., but it turns out you can find them easily.”

– Above: A boy waits for ice cream at Hibachi China Buffet, which brings together American and Chinese foods.

– Below: At Hibachi, customers can pick up French fries, seafood and white rice all at the same buffet table.

Liu agrees that for the Hibachi China Buffet, obtaining ingredients isn’t difficult because what his restaurants use is close to what Americans cook.

Liu says it is not hard to find authentic Asian sauces in the South, but most Americans tend not to like them. Hibachi makes adjustments on the sauces to better fit American tastes.

Ren says when he came to Durham 20 years ago, there were few Chinese or Asian restaurants. Until two years ago, there had been only one Chinese restaurant in the area.

“That was why I wanted to open Dragon Inn in the first place,” he says. “I wanted to provide Asians in this area with more choices on food.”

Gu’s husband, Zahed Khan, says American customers are increasingly ordering authentic dishes.

“Chinese food isn’t just about dishes like General Tso’s Chicken, Mongolian beef,” he says. “I think it’s just a matter of a lot of foodies reading (about authentic food) in articles and blogs.”

With a growing Asian population, Southerners aren’t limited to General Tso’s and sesame chicken. While Asian restaurants still cater to American tastes, authentic dishes are easier and easier to find.